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Lansing Democrats await Detroit debates

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If the road to the White House runs through Michigan — as national experts are saying it once again could — the Democratic debates in Detroit next week are part of the trip.

Lansing Democrats will be tuned in to CNN Tuesday and Wednesday nights to see who they want driving their car.

In 2016, Donald J. Trump inched out a 10,704-vote victory in the state — fewer people than the worst night at the Tigers’ Comerica Park. As a result, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania put him in the Oval Office.

City Pulse quizzed a handful of local Democrats to size up their large field of presidential challengers in advance of the spotlight on Michigan.

“Well, no matter what, we’ve got to beat Trump. We’ve got to get him out of there,” said Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, reflecting the unanimous assessment of the people we spoke to. Four years of chaos, race-baiting, division and unflinching right-wing governance is one thing, but eight years would profoundly change the country for a long time. 

But the respondents were much less organized around the right woman or man to take him on, each offering a different set of candidates and priorities to draw from the diverse field.

“The lineups should be interesting. On night one, Sanders is going to have to figure out a way to prove he hasn’t been made obsolete by Warren’s rise,” said Ingham County Commissioner Thomas Morgan, referring to Vermont and Massachusetts Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“Meanwhile, on night two, Biden will need to be ready for another assault from Harris as they compete for support among African American women, who despite what Twitter might have you believe, compose the actual base of the Democratic Party.” U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, scored points on busing against front-runner Joe Biden in last month’s MSNBC debate.

“I’m always looking to win,” said Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner. “I’ve had a Biden sticker on my car for three or four months. But I’m worried. He’d be fine if he was 10 years younger,” and noted “Uncle Joe” seemed to wilt under attacks from Harris on busing.

Grebner said he thought Biden was the only major candidate who hadn’t forfeited his standing with unpopular positions from the activist left, such as eliminating private health insurance, opening the border to all comers or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I tried hard not cringe at how this all would play with the general electorate,” he said.

State Rep. Sarah Anthony said Biden still has a lot of support in quarters of the African-American community, but she was most intrigued by a different pair of candidates. “There are a healthy number of African-American women who are excited about Kamala Harris,” said Anthony, who said she was a member of the same predominantely black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, as Harris.The state representative has a portrait of former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, on her office wall.

But Anthony said Warren also intrigues her: “There’s no match for Elizabeth Warren’s policy brain.”

And she wanted the candidates to channel Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan: “He spoke the language of working-class, blue-collar Michigan voters that were missed in our last campaign.”

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor also thought appealing to local voters should take priority. “They have to show you can win in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” he said. “I want someone who connects with voters, someone who understands what everyday people are going through.”

He was more circumspect on whom he might support, but said having been both a legislator and an executive official, he preferred the latter: a mayor or governor who had actually worked within a budget and run bureaucracies.

Schor said he knew South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg before he began his presidential run and was just the young mayor of a city slightly smaller than Lansing, and he liked the way Mayor Pete connected with people. He also was impressed with New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker’s ability to get things done, even in the minority. Booker tucked a provision into the 2017 Republican tax cut that gives developers a break on capital gains if they invest in disadvantaged communities, something Lansing is poised to capitalize on.

But Schor also saw reason Biden remains the front-runner: “He has a long history of working with other people. You want someone who can work with the other side.”

For Schertzing, winning the Midwest means coming from the Midwest, and his favorite pick was an underdog, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. “I still like her Midwestern charm,” he said, dismissing reports she’d been harsh to her staff. “I think if that’s the worst thing we have on her, people need to get a life.”

He liked Buttigieg for similar reasons: “I think there’s something about Midwestern sensibilities — that’s a good place to govern from.”

Schertzing agreed with Anthony on one thing: there are way too many candidates on the stage. “I’d rather we were down to 10 candidates by the end of the year.”

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